It’s beginning to feel like Groundhog Day in October. The U.S. government came dangerously close to hitting the debt ceiling — again — and in response, lawmakers have resorted to the same old stopgap measures.
Instead of offering real solutions that put the country on a path toward fiscal responsibility, policymakers opted for another temporary fix that fails to address the country's true debt burden.
The true debt burden is trillions of dollars promised to recipients down the road through Social Security, Medicare and other programs. And not a dime has been set aside to pay for it all.
These shortsighted proposals that extend the debt limit by a few months mean we will have the same conversation over and over again.
If policymakers are serious about finding a lasting solution to our nation’s debt, Congress needs to change fundamentally how it approves legislation. This means enacting new spending only after first agreeing on how to pay for it.
Today, spending and debt decisions are two separate processes, encouraging policymakers to adopt a buy-now-and-pay-later attitude.
Congress can pass the bills, and the president can sign into law legislation without considering whether money exists to pay for it. Only when the country reaches the debt limit do policymakers enact a different bill that authorizes additional borrowing by raising the debt ceiling.
This disjointed process makes raising the debt ceiling inevitable because the spending is already promised.
If Congress is serious about getting its fiscal house in order, it should return to the practice of forcing legislators to make borrowing and spending decisions simultaneously.
From 1789 to 1917, if Congress approved spending that required borrowing, it had to give the Treasury Department approval to borrow.
Bills that were not fully funded through tax increases or covered with new, approved borrowing were not permitted.
Because legislators can delay fully funding programs today, we have programs that promise payments without any way to meet these obligations.
For example, under current law, we should have $9.6 trillion for Social Security and $35.2 trillion for Medicare set aside to pay for future promised benefits over the next 75 years. How much have we set aside? Nothing.
Unfortunately, the process is unlikely to change as politicians have an incentive to please voters by making big promises in the present, while neglecting the future.
Today’s policymakers don’t seem particularly concerned about this multitrillion dollar shortfall because they’ll be out of office long before the bill comes due.
Enacting new spending only after deciding how the spending will be paid for is a better way forward. Fiscal responsibility requires difficult choices and the current debt limit debate provides an opportunity to find a long-term solution instead of another short-term patch.
Linking spending and funding decisions would get us out of the cycle. One Groundhog Day is enough.
Brian Brenberg and Jared Pincin are assistant professors of economics at The King's College in New York City.